The Bosnia Crisis: Arms still in place as wives flee

SLIP-SLIDING towards a confrontation with Nato, Bosnian Serbs yesterday halted the further handover of their heavy weapons around Sarajevo after a token beginning on Friday. At the same time, British and American embassies evacuated diplomat families from Belgrade, another sign that confrontation is looming.

The British embassy yesterday evacuated nine women, most of them the wives of embassy staff, to Budapest, while the Americans were making preparations for immediate departure of an unspecified number of embassy dependents. Britain and the US were the first Nato countries to have ordered their missions to take such action, although last week, Canada put an ad in a local paper urging its citizens to contact the embassy in Belgrade with their whereabouts as soon as possible. Evacuation is a clear signal that the Allies are serious about the most recent bombing threat and fear that there could be a surge of anti-Nato anger in Serbia itself in the event of an attack against the Serbs in Bosnia.

Nato has issued an ultimatum for both Muslim and Serbian artillery in and around Sarajevo to be withdrawn or handed over to the UN by 21 February. Failure to do so would result in Nato air strikes against uncontrolled weapons. Bosnian Serb military officers negotiating with their Muslim counterparts at Sarajevo airport yesterday suspended the further handover of heavy weapons, telling UN mediators that they could not continue the process because they 'did not have a full mandate to negotiate'.

Following a local truce brokered earlier this week by the UN troop commander in Bosnia, Lt Gen Sir Michael Rose, the Bosnian Muslims handed over five mortars to UN troops on Friday and the Serbs relinquished 13 artillery pieces. However, given the large size of the Serbs' arsenal in the hills around Sarajevo, the 13 weapons represented an extremely modest first step.

But even that small show of good faith dissipated yesterday. The Serbs' apparent reluctance to continue with the handover comes against the background of the emergence of an increasingly hard-line attitude of Bosnian Serbs. Many Serbs say that they are prepared to call Nato's bluff because without their artillery they would be unable to defend themselves against the Muslims. Faced with such a prospect, many Serbs say they would prefer a confrontation with Nato.

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